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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

The Bay’s Youngest Mayor is shaking up South San Francisco

South San Francisco Mayor, James Coleman, gives an impassioned speech to a packed City Council chambers' audience on December 5th, 2023
Anish Mohanty
South San Francisco Mayor, James Coleman, gives an impassioned speech to a packed City Council chambers' audience on December 5th, 2023.
This story was made to be heard, click the play button above to listen

South San Francisco is known more commonly for the frequent sound of airplanes flying overhead from SFO and for its iconic sign on the hill that declares it – “the industrial city.” But the city's recently inaugurated and youngest ever Mayor – James Coleman – wants to change that. He hopes that South City can earn the reputation of also being a place that is thinking about the future of housing and sustainability.

A Day of “Firsts”

This afternoon was a day of firsts for many reasons — the library had only just opened. Coleman was making history, too. He is the city’s youngest ever andfirst openly LGBTQ+mayor to rotate in, at just 24 years old. During his inauguration speech, he talked emotionally about the journey that led to this moment. Coleman was born and raised in South San Francisco – he left to attend college. But in 2020, like a lot of students, Coleman was forced to move back home.

“I came home to the murder of George Floyd, with widespread calls for public safety reform. And I came home to a community that sought justice and change to a status quo that had failed them,” Coleman said during his inauguration speech. “So, like anyone else would, I dropped my college thesis and ran for City Council.”

And he won! He even beat out an incumbent who had been in office longer than some of Coleman’s supporters have been alive. During his time on the council, South City has seen a lot of progressive “firsts.” Coleman helped with the passage of a hazard pay ordinance at the height of the pandemic and advocated for an affordable housing measure. Now that it’s his turn to be mayor, housing continues to drive his platform.

“When you are growing up, and you're looking to move out, you need an affordable place to live,” Coleman says. “You need to be able to have the tools and resources necessary not just to survive, but to thrive.”

Coleman’s age plays a factor in how he develops public policy. “I think the most important thing is having a diverse set of voices in all levels of government, right,” Coleman says. “You do need your seniors there, but you also need your young people and your middle aged people, right.”

Priorities for the Coming Year

Coleman ended his inauguration speech by stating his priorities – goals he said would help create a positive future for the city’s youth: housing, climate change and education.

Those issues resonate with his Gen-Z supporters like Franchesca Buendia, Coleman’s former campaign manager.

“I’m 23, and I’m seeing a lot of my younger peers worried about what their futures are gonna be like. Especially since the cost of living is really jarring if you wanna be independent and move out,” Buendia says. “It’s either have roommates…[or] move out of South City. And I think it really dilutes the sense of community where you don’t have a choice to stay intact with where you grew-up in.”

I also grew up in South San Francisco, and I’ve experienced

these things first-hand. I couldn’t afford to live in South City or on the Peninsula, soI moved away. Coleman says he wants to change this pattern.

“We are a very dynamic city, we do have a lot of wealth, we do have a lot of growth. And it's just about making sure that the benefits of our growth are spread out among every resident of South City, so that no one is left behind,” Coleman said.

South San Francisco is more commonly associated with the nearbysounds of SFO and agrowing biotech sector than with political or social progress.

“South San Francisco is known as the industrial city. But I also want it to be known as the best city to raise a family,” Coleman says.

South City is primed to receive state funding for infrastructure and affordable housing. Their new 20 year plan for housing development, or Housing Element, was recently approved by the state.

I think South City has a really good track record of having great city staff that manage great city buildings. And have built great capital projects,” Coleman says.

Adjusting for Present and Future Growth

South San Francisco’s population has seen a 12% growth in the last two decades. But, it has a much higher percentage of low income households than the rest of the county and region. So, Coleman says he’s going to bolster the range of affordable housing options. He plans to use funds from ballot Measure AA to acquire affordable housing this year.

He says affordable housing can even be a climate change solution when it is paired with reliable public transit. So, Coleman also wants to focus onincreasing the quality and frequency of the city’s free shuttle system.

After the inauguration, Jakarta Kumasi-Nakuru felt cautiously hopeful.

“I really hope he…continues on his promises of looking after our generation. ‘Cause it is really difficult for us, socio-economically, to make any kind of independent impact,” Kumasi-Nakuru said. “Even getting our first car on our own is such a huge hurdle for us.”

Although Coleman’s term is only a year – this may not be his last time in politics. Coleman recently announcedthat he’s running for office again. This time, it's for the San Mateo Democratic Party Central Committee.

This story aired in the February 26, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Crosscurrents Crosscurrents
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paul C. Kelly Campos is a writer, poet and translator of Irish and Nicaraguan descent. His bilingual work has appeared in NPR’s Next Generation Radio, The Washington Post, KQED Forum, KALW, Prism, The Golden Gate Xpress, Seen and Heard, The San Franciscan, and Borderless magazine.